You Stay Classy, Kansas City

A lot has been made this past week in Kansas City about the return of current Mariner and former Royal, Mike Sweeney. Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star set off the talking point with his article, which gave reference to the few thousands fans who remained at the game on Monday night and booed vigorously as Sweeney came up as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning. [...]

After reading Mellinger’s article, the first question that came to mind was, “How could anyone boo this guy? He played as hard as anyone I have ever seen in a Royals uniform.”

In an attempt to understand why said fans would boo, I think it is imperative to go back a few years and explore the environment of the Royals at the time.

As Mellinger eluded to in his article, Sweeney burst onto the scene in 1999 and for the next four years through 2002, was one of the best offensive players in the game of baseball. His stats during this time were more than solid, they were fantastic. In 2000, Sweeney belted 29 HRs and a club record (still intact) 144 RBIs. And by the way, he hit .333 and had an OBP of .407. The next year, 2001, was the worst of this four year stretch, where he ONLY hit .304 and had an OBP of .374, while hitting 29 HRs again and driving in 99 runs. A side note here — would you like to have that bat in the Royals lineup today? Yeah, me too. In 2002, he was able to right-the-ship, and in only 126 games, he hit .340 with an OBP of .417, hitting 24 HRs and driving in 86 runs.

So, after proving himself more than capable for four seasons, Sweeney was given a five-year, $55 million contract by Allard Baird. At the time, it was the largest in team history, until the same contract was given to Gil Meche just a few years ago.

Now here is where the blood starts to boil for some fans. After inking the contract, Sweeney struggled to remain healthy and was never a consistent member of the Royals lineup for the next five years. His back was constantly giving him problems and for a baseball player, a bad back is the kiss of death. Done. Dunzo. Basta.

Still, many other fans will point to another source of frustration regarding the Sweeney contract — Carlos Beltran.

Perhaps my favorite player in Royals history, Beltran could flat-out do it all. A true five-tool player, he could hit for average and power from both sides of the plate, had speed on the bases and in the field on defense, and had a hose in center field. I remember going to games out at the K and watching him play. It was amazing because it didn’t even look like he was trying. Everything seemed so effortless and easy. It was unfair, really.

In 2001, Beltran put up some very solid numbers — 24 HRs and 101 RBIs, while stealing 31 bases and scoring 106 runs. He followed up with even better numbers in 2002 — 29 HRs and 105 RBIs, stealing 35 bases and scoring 114 runs. Even more impressive was the fact that he played every single game that year. Yep, all 162 of them.

During the offseason between 2002 and the 2003 season, Allard Baird had some decisions to make. Keep the All Star first basemen, who was a staple in the Kansas City community as a model citizen, or to lock up the five-tool center fielder for the next half-decade? Unfortunately at the time, Baird didn’t have the financial means to pay both what they deserved, and obviously Baird chose Sweeney.

Was it the right decision from a baseball standpoint? Honestly, I would have to say no. Players like Carlos Beltran don’t come around every day, let alone every decade. Sure, Sweeney was an offensive machine, an All Star and a great person. He was the safe choice, but he was no Beltran.

So could you say that locking up Mike Sweeney in 2003 for five-years at $55 million (over Carlos Beltran) was a bad investment?

Maybe. And I’m leaning towards yes.

But here is the sad truth to the situation. It was a gamble on Baird’s part, and he lost. Injuries happen in sports and prevent good players from becoming great. That’s just the fact of the matter. There is no question that had Mike Sweeney been healthy for the vast majority of his career, he would be a legend in Kansas City. Allard Baird would be looked at differently, and who knows what kind of impact he would have had on some of the Royals teams of the mid 2000s? Well, let’s be honest here. The Royals pitching was awful, so he probably wouldn’t have helped them win that many more games. But I digress.

I really liked Mike Sweeney as a Royal and for what he meant and stood for as a person and a baseball player. He played hard everyday and I’m sure it just ate at him on those days when he wasn’t in the starting lineup. I wish that things would have worked out differently for him and that he had been healthy as a Royal. It would have been fun to watch.

But for those who were booing and bad mouthing him during his return to Kansas City this past Monday night, you might want to reconsider your prerogative. Would you turn down a $55 million contract if it was offered to you for the work you had done at your current job? I doubt that there are many of you who would. Was Sweeney not deserving of the contract? Sweeney could have gotten even more money on the open market, but wanted to stay in Kansas City and help the Royals win. Should Sweeney be viewed as the scapegoat for all the bad years in the late 1990s and most of the 2000s? Definitely not. The Royals problems stemmed much deeper than the fact that Mike Sweeney had a bad back. Was it bad luck and unfortunate that Sweeney couldn’t play for a good chunk of the five year contract? Absolutely it was. But, hey, that’s life sometimes. It’s not always fair and doesn’t always make sense.

Like Royals fans booing Mike Sweeney.

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  • Wally Fish

    Jon I agree with your assessment on Sweeney as a player and a person. The thing is Baird’s decision wasn’t as cut and dry as saying he could have signed either Beltran or Sweeney at the time.

    I don’t believe Carlos ever had any intention of staying with the Royals and I believe that Baird knew that. If you have one star that will sign, and a more talented “complete package” star who seems destined to test the free agent waters, you have to take the guy who you know you can sign or be left holding the bag on both players.

    All things being equal I believe Baird would have signed Beltran, but all things weren’t equal. Sweeney was willing to sign at fair market (or below market) to stay in KC. Beltran was only going to stay if the Royals paid him well above market value and the Royals couldn’t take that chance.

    I remain steadfast in my belief that Allard Baird did the right thing based on the circumstances. It’s just unfortunate that Sweeney couldn’t stay healthy, and ownership never let Baird add a second large contract to the team.

    We should never forget that from 1999-2002 Sweeney turned in 4 of the 10 best seasons at 1B in team history and was one of the best RH hitters in all of baseball at the time.

  • Michael Engel

    If Sweeney stays healthy and keeps up even a .310/25/100 type pace rather than perhaps progressing, we’d be calling this one of the best extensions one could imagine. As it is, well it’s just a disappointing offensive talent falling to the rigors of baseball. It happens.

    Remember the clause in the contract that Sweeney could opt out if the Royals didn’t finish .500 or better within the first two years (I believe) of the contract? The one .500 or better season came shortly after in 2003, basically sticking KC with the contract of an oft-injured player. Before the contract could finish up, we were welcoming Mike Wood, John Buck and Mark Teahen. Fans were booing Sweeney from time to time even then towards the end.

    And it’s unfortunate because he was one of my favorite Royals – not just a slugger, but a HITTER. A guy who seemed to find the clutch double or whose bat looked twice as big when he clubbed a homer. Even moderately more healthy, Sweeney could be hitting at an Edgar Martinez type rate to this day. But alas.

    It doesn’t make sense to boo him when he comes into town, though. He signed a contract that, at the time, breathed a little hope and life into the franchise. I don’t even get the booing of Johnny Damon so much. People boo Kyle Farnsworth because he sucks, not because he agreed to sign for higher money than anyone else would pay. People boo Robinson Tejeda because he can’t find the strike zone with a GPS, a map, a compass, Amerigo Vespucci, and a guide holding his hand.

    I don’t recall people booing Jermaine Dye, though. Maybe I just missed it.

  • John

    Sweeney’s injury problems started in 2004. I wonder what happened in 2004 that could effect injuries and recovery time, mandatory random testing perhaps?

    • Wally Fish

      Sweeney was hurt long before 2004. He missed 36 games in 2002 and 54 games in 2003 before missing 56 games in 2004.

      I can’t say definitively that Sweeney avoided the temptation of taking PEDs but it seems way outside his personality and belief system. Further, I seriously question how helpful steroids can be in helping players recover from back problems which are very tricky and very unique. On both those levels it seems very improbable that Sweeney was “juicing.”

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